In the 1996 MLB season, we saw the Cleveland Indians end the year with the best record in the bigs at 99-62 (played just 161 games) and eventually the New York Yankees winning the World Series in a 4-2 series win over the Atlanta Braves. However the thing that caught my eye was neither the Indians or Yankees, or even any players on either of those teams. Instead, it was a 20 year old Seattle Mariner and 39 year old Minnesota Twin. Those players, of course, are Alex Rodriguez and Paul Molitor who were both among the youngest/oldest players in the league respectively, and this is nothing new, as a number of sports talk podcasts have discussed this over the years.
In that 1996 season, we saw the 20-turning-21 year old Alex Rodriguez become the 2nd youngest player since 1955 to have a season with a batting average of at least .300 and at least 100 runs batted in (Al Kaline in 1955 recorded such a season a few months younger than Rodriguez in ’96). A-Rod turned in a slash line of .358/.414/.631 and an OPS of 1.045; he also recorded 215 hits, 36 home runs and 123 RBI’s while scoring 141 runs. Rodriguez finished 2nd in MVP voting behind Juan Gonzalez by a slim margin while getting an All-Star bid and a Silver Slugger award.
** Alex Rodriguez’ ’96 season is just one of 7 such seasons by a player younger than 25 years old
Also in 1996, Paul Molitor turned in the same sort of season, kind of. Molitor’s slash line of .341/.390/.468 and OPS of .858 are all less impressive than A-Rod’s, as well as his 9 homers and 113 RBI’s. Molitor did, however, drop in 225 hits to best Rodriguez in that category. However, Molitor’s season is all the more impressive when you remember he was turning 40 that same year. Molitor was the second oldest player ever to record a .300+ BA and 100+ RBI’s season since 1955, as Barry Bonds was about 1 month older in 2004. His performance at the plate also earned him a Silver Slugger award. Another oddity about Molitor’s season is that his 9 home runs was the 2nd least amount of homers slugged in such a season since 1955 (Tom Herr hit only 8 in 1985).
** Paul Molitor’s ’96 season is just one of 17 total such seasons by players over 35 years old
Where the strong paradox comes in, as I’m sure you have noticed by now, is that both the 2nd youngest and 2nd oldest players ever to record seasons of .300+ BA and 100+ RBI’s came in the same season. 1996 gave baseball fans a peak into the future with stars like Alex Rodriguez busting onto the scene, but also gave a reminder that the past wasn’t done yet in future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor’s impressive year. Seeing both Rodriguez and Molitor put on hitting displays in their own ways is also paradoxical. Rodriguez displayed hitting finesse with power while launching those 36 home runs, which is exactly 4 times as many home runs as Molitor hit. However, Molitor knocked in 113 RBI’s which was just 10 less than Rodriguez. Molitor’s singles approach worked just as effectively as A-Rod’s power swing, yet just appeared less spectacular.
It is also important to note that the 1996 season saw 25 other players hit over .300 and drive in more than 100 runs, with names including Andres Galarraga, Albert Belle, Juan Gonzalez and Mo Vaughn leading the RBI category for such players. In fact, 1996 saw the 4th most players with such a season (27) in MLB history (only the years 2000, 1930 and 1990 saw more). It is also worth mentioning the likelihood of these kinds of seasons seems to be dwindling down as 2013 saw just 5 players reach the feat, 2014 only saw 3 and 2015 only had 1 (Paul Goldschmidt).
At the end of the ’96 season, new age fans got what they wanted and the fans of traveled veterans got their entertainment as well. It is significant that we saw multiple players produce such seasons in the same year, but even more so when it includes some of the youngest, and oldest, players ever to do so.
** All stats included in this piece are from Baseball Reference’s Play Index **